Bentley Rhythm Ace
The Future Sound of the United Kingdom Three
(Ministry of Sound)
Brothers Gonna Work It Out
Live at the Social, Volume 1
On the Floor at the Boutique
The Future Sound of the United Kingdom Two
(Ministry of Sound)
As big beat becomes the techno subgenre most likely to succeed on mainstream American radio's terms, a lot of people are growing wary of it--understandably, perhaps, but a mite disingenuously as well. For example, when Fatboy Slim's You've Come a Long Way, Baby was released in October, a number of prominent critics felt obligated to point out that it was just, you know, a novelty record. In Rolling Stone Rob Sheffield compared Fatboy Slim to Men Without Hats, and in the Village Voice Robert Christgau equated him with Weird Al Yankovic. While both writers made it clear that they liked the record, it still felt like they were contributing to a dismissal by consensus.
You've Come a Long Way, Baby, like Supa Dupa Fly or Dig Me Out--respectively Sheffield and Christgau's favorite albums of '97--contains a minimum of filler, provides ample evidence of a strong and consistent vision, and kicks ass. But critics are accustomed to viewing rock bands and R & B singers as entities with the potential for a long run, and in particular Missy Elliott and Sleater-Kinney are often perceived as symbolic--they're not just kicking ass, they're women kicking ass in the name of women everywhere. Fatboy Slim, aka Norman Cook, is a balding white Englishman devoted to kicking ass in the name of kicking ass. It's harder to articulate why that might be important, and if it's not important, it must be a passing fad.
If there's one complaint I'll tolerate about You've Come a Long Way, Baby, it's that any music so completely devoted to kicking your ass is bound to make you numb after a while. Since overstatement is big beat's stock-in-trade, and since it's an unwritten rule that sample-based tracks must be at least five minutes long, even the best full-length albums can be exhausting. But you could say the same about any classic of joyously dumb punk rock--try listening to the Ramones for 64 minutes straight.
The best way to listen to big beat at home isn't on single-artist albums anyway. In general, the and-you-can-dance-to-it aesthetic thrives on the DJ-mix CD, and big beat in particular is made for the format. Unlike other postrave musical styles, which define themselves with key sounds--Roland TB-303 bass lines for acid house, double-time breakbeats for jungle--big beat defines itself by its influences. It steals like crazy and leaves fingerprints all over the place. In club sets and on mix CDs, big-beat DJs lay out their heroes and friends--many of whom are accomplished borrowers themselves--side by side and then literally put their own spin on things. They show off their roots like a tailor-made suit.
Eclectic dance mixing, of course, is hardly new, as anyone familiar with the legends of DJ heroes like Larry Levan knows. But as dance culture shrinks into discrete pockets of stylistic diehards, any and all attempts to form one nation under a groove are necessary and welcome. The year's most fascinating reissue, Tommy Boy's four-volume The Perfect Beats, celebrates a period when postpunk aesthetics mated with postdisco grooves to set the stage for myriad theretofore-unimaginable future fusions, among them postrock. And in the here and now, mix CDs by big-beat stars are making hash of dance-floor divisions.
Brothers Gonna Work It Out (Astralwerks) and Live at the Social, Volume 1 (an import on Heavenly), both mixed by the Chemical Brothers; the second and third volumes of the Future Sound of the United Kingdom series, mixed by the Freestylers and Bentley Rhythm Ace (imports on Ministry of Sound); and On the Floor at the Boutique, mixed by Fatboy Slim (a Skint import due for domestic release by Astralwerks this summer) jumble together blaxploitation funk, hip-hop, rock, industrial, and the dizzying multitude of postrave genres. Emphasis naturally falls on big beat, but you'll also hear recognizable chunks of traditional house, acid house, and drum 'n' bass. Sometimes the combinations sound obvious, but when they work, as James Brown would say, good God.
Brothers Gonna Work It Out and Live at the Social find the Chemical Brothers careening up and down the rough-sensual spectrum. The domestic title is noisier, with air-raid-siren drones moving up through and over the music at several junctures, sometimes drowning it out only to be taken out in turn by rock-hard rhythm-section grooves. The import relies less on the Chemical Brothers' own tunes (five mixes of them appear on Brothers Gonna Work It Out, only three on Live at the Social) and those of their contemporaries and more on the hard black music that inspired the duo in the first place: cuts from Eric B & Rakim, the Crooklyn Clan, obscure funkster Eddie Bo, and the dancehall single "Wede Man" by Selectah are among the highlights.
Bentley Rhythm Ace's The Future Sound of the United Kingdom Three installment is the most eclectic--and the most problematic--of the bunch. The duo has Fatboy Slim following Jefferson Airplane, dancehall roarer Tiny Lion giving way to Betty Boo's immortally stupid "Doin' the Do," Pigmeat Markham followed by Georgie Fame followed by Hardfloor. Its closing sequence goes: Billy Paul's "Am I Black Enough for You," U Roy's "Stick Together," the Jimmy Castor Bunch's "E-Man Groovin," and Buffalo Springfield's "I Am a Child," which is festooned with cartoon alien noises. But though the whimsy can get overwhelming, some of the collages are pretty inspired--among them these last four cuts.
Aesthetically cleaner and more coherent is the Freestylers' The Future Sound of the United Kingdom Two. In addition to big-beat and the group's trademark electro, it's the only CD in this batch that incorporates England's hottest dance-floor commodities this side of big beat--jump-up jungle (Aphrodite & Mickey Finn's "Drop Top Caddy" and Urban Takeover's slamming remix of the Jungle Brothers' "Jungle Brother") and speed garage (DJ Pooch's "Let the Bass Roll").
And then there's On the Floor at the Boutique, which leads off with my favorite track of all time ("Apache," by Michael Viner's Incredible Bongo Band, from 1968), ends with my favorite single of the year (Fatboy Slim's own "The Rockafeller Skank"), and sustains the impossible momentum for the full 60 minutes in between. It gets my vote for best album of 1998, because even more than You've Come a Long Way, Baby it solidifies the best artist of the year's sublimely populist aesthetic--his uncanny knack for making trash stick.
Collectively these mix CDs make the smartest argument I've heard anywhere by anybody for the look-ma-I-put-samples-on-my-songcraft school of pop music. They're as good as anything being released anywhere by anybody right now, the fruits of an active, working aesthetic that both honors its components and creates something new. Even better, they make you want to get off your ass and jam--and I feel sorry for anyone to whom that urge is a novelty.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Fatboy Slim photo by Michael lavine;.